DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Some conservatives in Congress are outraged over the idea that the Obama Administration could thwart their plans to threaten blow up the economy if the President doesn't approve steep cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
But there are a few conservatives who remember who won last November's presidential election and are willing to take President Obama at his word when he said that he's not going to negotiate with the Republican leadership in Congress who want to link a vote on the federal debt ceiling to making those cuts in social welfare spending.
However, when you cut through the absurdity of the debt ceiling opponents, a few simple facts jump out.
First, fiscal decisions do rest with Congress. Under the
Constitution, it passes laws that specify tax rates and sets budgets for the federal government.
When the expenses exceed revenues, the Treasury Department
borrows what's needed to make up the gap.
This has been so for the last two centuries or so. Congress determines revenue and spending, and thus determines the amount the Treasury Department has to borrow.
The Constitution doesn't require Congress to vote on increasing the national debt, but over the years, it has been customary to have Congress do so.
And it has been equally customary for Congress to sign off on raising the debt ceiling, which it has done 40 times since 1980
- 17 times for Ronald Reagan;
- eight times for George H.W. Bush;
- four times for Bill Clinton;
- seven times for George W. Bush;
- and three times for Barack Obama.
At least, it was customary raide the debt ceiling 39 of those 40 times, until the current group of nihilists and berserkers that make up a good chunk of today's Republican Party went to Washington in 2010, and almost destroyed the global economy by delaying vote No. 40 in the summer of 2011.
The battle over the debt ceiling in 2011 cost the nation its AAA bond rating, meaning America must pay more to borrow. Republicans didn't care about the possibility that the United States might default on its debts. All they wanted to do was get spending cuts that they couldn't get through normal means.
According to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, we stand about four to six weeks away from a default. Without the ability to borrow, the government will not be able pay its foreign creditors, Social Security beneficiaries, or numerous other obligations.
That's why, at his news conference on Jan. 14, President Obama made it clear that he isn't going to play financial chicken with the Republicans.
"Republicans in Congress have two choices here," the President said. "They can act responsibly, and pay America's bills, or they can act irresponsibly and put America through another economic crisis. But they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy. The financial well-being of the American people is not leverage to be used. The full faith and credit of the United States of America is
not a bargaining chip."
Republicans say elections have consequences. Despite their best efforts, not only did President Obama win a second term by more than 5,000,000 votes, but Democrats widened their majority in the Senate and narrowed the Republican majority in the House.
Because we're not swearing in Mitt Romney as president next week, the specter of a Congress voting to privatize and eventually eliminate Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid has passed for the time being.
But the threats to these and other social welfare programs
remain, and it is not just the conservatives doing the threatening. The weaker-kneed members of the Democratic minority in the House are still willing to bargain these programs away in the hope of some "grand bargain" that achieves deficit reduction while preserving necessary programs.
While I believe President Obama gave up too much in the
so-called fiscal cliff bill, despite getting the Republicans to vote for a modest tax increase, I think he realizes that the moment has come to stand firm.
If Republicans want to be the ones that allow one of the biggest economies in the world to stop paying its bills and plunge the world into a depression, let them own that idea. We'll see how long the GOP will survive as a major political party if they pull a stunt like that.
But there is hope that it is not going to happen. Why? I offer as evidence the House of Representatives vote on Jan. 15 on the long-overdue aid package for victims of Hurricane Sandy.
It passed by a 241-180 margin, with 192 Democrats and 49
Republicans voting in favor. Only one Democrat, Jim Cooper of Tennessee, voted no.
When you consider how much pressure there was by the usual
suspects on the far-right to block passage of the Sandy aid, such as the Heritage Foundation, the Club for Growth, and the Family Research Council, it is amazing that there were 49 Republicans willing to bow to common sense.
Perhaps there will be a similar number ready to do the same on the debt-ceiling vote. If so, it will pass, and the nonsense of the past couple of weeks will be just a bad memory.
And, if this apparent outbreak of common sense destroys the Republican Party majority in the House? That's not necessarily a bad thing.
AR Chief of Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. A graduate of the JFK School of Government at Harvard, he edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2013 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.